Lawmakers pitch ways to ease student debt

High school literacy courses one suggestion

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

As student loan debt tops $1 trillion nationally, state lawmakers are recommending ways to ease the burden on Massachusetts college students.

Approximately 66 percent of Massachusetts students take out loans to pay for college, and the state ranks 12th in the nation for the number of students carrying debt.

A Joint Committee on Higher Education subcommittee approved a report Tuesday with nine recommendations to make higher education more affordable for Massachusetts students.

Lawmakers said they were surprised to learn that many students lack a basic understanding of finances and loans. As a result, lawmakers are recommending the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education find a way to offer a financial literacy courses to all Massachusetts high school students as part of the core curriculum.

Rep. Angelo D’Emilia, a Republican from Bridgewater, said he was astounded to hear students speak about taking out loans to pay for school, totally unaware they were responsible for paying the loans back once they graduated.

Another recommendation is to try to decrease the time it takes for students to earn a degree by funding and promoting dual enrollment programs (where students take college level courses for credit while they still attend high school) and making advanced placement (AP) course credits equally valuable for public and private colleges.

Rep. Denise Provost, a member of the subcommittee, questioned how lawmakers could persuade private colleges to accept and give credit for all AP courses offered at public high schools.

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Other recommendations from the report include increasing and reforming some state aid, including the need-based MassGrant scholarship program and the John & Abigail Adams Scholarship; regulating more tightly for-profit schools; creating incentives to save for college by reforming the Massachusetts 529 College Savings Plan; advancing loan forgiveness programs; and developing public-private partnerships designed to match up educational advancement with skilled employment opportunities.

The recommendations were developed after lawmakers held seven public hearings at public and private colleges and universities around the state. The report now heads to the full joint committee, which could decide to develop legislation around the recommendations, according to Sen. Eileen Donoghue of Lowell, who co-chaired the subcommittee along with Rep. Paul Mark of Peru. Mark said the report is “supposed to spur other action.”